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Russian Responses • The Sartre Continues • A Dream Letter • Autonomous Writing • Missing Virtues • Good Breeding? • Revisions And Improvements • Deductive Inductive Reasoning • Infinite Ignorance • Open Ended
DEAR EDITOR: You gave me plenty of space in your previous issue to air my views on Russian philosophy, but can I just make a few comments on that issue, and draw some interim conclusions?
Tim Madigan notes the prevalent belief that Russian thought is something non-Russians can’t appreciate. Most philosophers would want to throw their hands up at this, surely? Either philosophy pursues truth, or what’s going on in its name–in Russia’s case the relentless pursuit of national identity–has to be differently described. I have suggested in my own work that this pursuit of national identity is indeed the focus of ‘Russian philosophy’. This is not to deny its interest in a wider world. Also, it has many points of interest for non-Russian philosophers. But as an excuse for bypassing the mainstream rational Western tradition, this focus has proved to be not only the means to selfdefinition, but intellectual suicide.
A contributory factor in that suicide is the fact that there is a fundamental pride and tribal/national arrogance in the Russian assertion that their philosophy is impenetrable by outsiders. When Kostikova and Kosilova ended their article by writing that “the influence of Russian philosophy on the rest of the world’s philosophical processes remains insufficient, but this situation, the roots of which lie in Russia’s recent history; is now being changed by the interest shown by foreign philosophers and scientists,” they unwittingly displayed this pride, by in effect saying that the world of international learning must come to them (even though it won’t understand when it gets there).
Anyone wondering whether to be persuaded that it is only Russia’s recent history which is to blame for its philosophical isolation should consider what Anna Arutunyan had to say about the lack of agency in contemporary Russia. Her suggestion that an addiction to the immaterial–very much visible in Russian philosophy–is also a way of simply not caring, is spot-on, even if it is peculiar to argue this from the condition of the Russian language. The Vekhi philosophers in 1909 uttered in print words to the effect of ‘we Russians don’t care about the truth.’ Chaadaev said it before them in 1831.
Tim Madigan brings an American sensibility to the Russian philosophical phenomenon when he says that the culture seems in need of a dose of John Dewey’s pragmatism; also that they will reach philosophical maturity when they can regard Marxism as just another philosophical system. I have to agree with him that the Russian tradition is singularly deficient in the quest for objective truth and respect for rational procedures. The bulk of my critical work has been to emphasise the absence of the Cartesian project in Russia and the negative consequences that have followed from this. But there is also a positive consequence, especially as Russians see it. A non-Cartesian tradition has meant the non-separation of moral and epistemological issues in Russia, and the continuing search for a moral philosophy of being. This is exactly the definition of philosophy which has become built in to the Russian sense of national identity, if they won’t mind my saying. I find it an exciting project.
But it is therefore very difficult to advise a dose of pragmatism, because if this advice were heeded, Russian culture would have to abandon its strengths as well as admit to its weaknesses, and in consequence it might well fall apart. I hope Tim Madigan will forgive me, but his counsel in philosophy reminded me of the good intentions of Western bankers in 1992, when they piled into the country to de- Sovietize it, thinking it could be made ‘capitalist’ and ‘democratic’ overnight, having no idea of what the fabric of Russian society, and its intellectual history, was like. We all know what chaos has resulted from that Western misjudgement, as well as from ingrained Russian carelessness of the kind Arutunyan describes.
My dearest hope is that the Russian intelligentsia will sooner or later get a more realistic handle on its own weaknesses as well as its strengths, and see how these can be corrected for, and the new knowledge applied, to further all our philosophical understanding, as well as improve the quality of life in that difficult country . Russia is a place where everything familiarly of value in the West seems to have a double value, and takes constant sorting out.
By the way, I also wouldn’t describe the Russian intelligentsia as ‘prestigious’ as Madigan does. It’s true that historically it has been an elite, but membership, classically by men and women of different classes, was more a badge of honour, earned through moral commitment to the cause of social reform in Russia, combined with acceptance of the imperative to be a cultivated person oneself. ‘Prestigious’ sounds suspiciously close to a contemporary Western concern with image and status to me, not at all what Russia has traditionally been about, and good for that. Yours with best wishes, and thanks for a controversial issue,
DEAR EDITOR: In his article on ‘Tolstoy’s Theory Of Nonviolence’ (Issue 54) Abdusalam A Guseinov uses the negative phrase “not as I want” and the positive phrase “as you want” to give the formula of love. To demonstrate this in action, or rather, non-action [nonviolence], he says we must refrain from doing what is not wanted by the object of our action. However when he gets to the Golden Rule [‘Do unto others…’], and says that the main consequences of applying it is nonviolence, Christians [and others] apparently suddenly have the competence to decide how the recipient should be treated, ie as we would want to be treated, not as they (recipients) wish to be.
The Sartre Continues
DEAR EDITOR: May I respond briefly to the criticisms of my article on Sartre (Issue 53) made by Messrs Robjant and Colvin in Issue 54?
Mr Colvin queries my use of the phrase “democracy in any meaningful sense”. In the Cold War period the term ‘democracy’ was certainly used by both sides in a meaningless sense, eg the ‘People’s Democracies’ of Eastern Europe.
Mr Robjant accuses me of “extolling the merits of terrorism”. He clearly has not read my article properly. My own position is that of Trotsky, who condemned “individual terrorism”. What I tried to show was that Sartre produced criteria to justify the use of violence. Mr Robjant also believes violence is sometimes justified–cf his support for the US army’s overthrow of Nazism. So his difference with Sartre is merely one of tactics, not of principle.
Military action did lead to the defeat of Nazi power in Europe in 1945. That parliamentary democracy was established resulted from the fact that there were indigenous popular movements with a will to make democracy work. That military action alone can’t do the job is shown by the fact that the same scenario is not working in Iraq.
US taxpayers, for whom Mr Robjant shows such solicitude, did indeed pay for Marshall Aid: they also paid for the splitting and weakening of French and Italian trade unions, and for military threats designed to persuade Italians not to vote for left-wing parties in 1948.
Mr Robjant lists a number of Stalinist crimes which he claims Sartre “failed to notice”. I direct him to my book Sartre Against Stalinism (Berghahn, 2004) which deals with these points in some detail.
Mr Robjant claims Marx’s Capital shows history developing “through predetermined stages to a necessary conclusion”. But Capital is devoted entirely to an analysis of the contradictory workings of capitalism; it contains barely a sentence devoted to what might replace it.
DEAR EDITOR: David Robjant should really be less sloppy with his references. The notion of “a history developing through predetermined stages” is not to be found in Capital (all four volumes of it), for that is an analysis of 19th-century capitalist production–and contains some remarkably accurate forecasts. Presumably what he has in mind is The Communist Manifesto–though even that is not so crude.
The remainder of his letter is no more reliable. The sarcastic reference to “such obscure and unreported events” as the Ukrainian famine is instead literally true–it was well concealed and indeed obscure and unreported, little known about, until after 1945. Esteemed Western visitors had testified to the humane conditions prevailing in the Gulag. The publication in Sartre’s journal took place immediately following exposure of the realities by a Soviet defector. None of that, to be sure, exculpates Sartre’s four subsequent years of uncritical attitude to the Soviet regime.
However, Stalin was not Hitler’s ally when the Nazis occupied Paris, but a neutral hoping that the two sides would destroy each other. As for the liberation of France, I’d always had the impression that the British and Canadians–not to mention the Free French–also had something to do with it. At any rate, it became possible only because the diabolical Soviets were engaging the bulk of the Wehrmacht on the Eastern front. The notion that the US has annexed Western Europe is shared by such impeccably anti-communist establishment figures as Zbigniew Brzezinski, adviser to US presidents, who expressed that opinion in 2001 during an interview with Timothy Garton Ash. That, after all, is what great powers do to weaker ones when their governments believe vital national interests to be at stake–as the US has done to Latin America since the 19th century. We can agree that Stalin was an exceptionally evil ruler, but it is hard to believe that any Russian regime, democratic or otherwise, would have acted any differently towards Eastern Europe in the circumstances of the years immediately following 1945.
DEAR EDITOR: I’ve just read Christine Daigle’s article on Sartre in Issue 53. Am I correct in assuming she has an anatomy markedly different from mine, as she says “Let us imagine that moved by jealousy, curiosity, or vice, I have just glued my ear to the door and looked through the keyhole.”? You try it; it’s not possible. Or maybe the magazine needs another proof-reader. ‘Gis a job!
GAVIN (ANATOMICALLY NORMAL)
DAVIES, BY EMAIL
A Dream Letter
DEAR EDITOR: I read with interest Michael Philips essay (‘Is Skepticism Ridiculous?’–Issue 53), in which he rejects skepticism of the kind that would question ‘core beliefs’–such as belief in the existence of the external world. Philips then characterizes these skeptics’ actions as contradictory to their beliefs, since they live as if their core beliefs were true while at the same time denying them. But Philips doesn’t really present an effective argument against such skepticism. The reason that most, if not all, arguments against philosophical skepticism are unconvincing is because such anti-skeptical arguments just presuppose that which the skeptic is questioning, thereby begging the question.
Consider dream skepticism: if one cannot know that one is not now dreaming, then one cannot have knowledge of the external world as normally perceived. As some have argued, any empirical evidence one might refer to as a refutation of dream skepticism already presupposes that one is not in an elaborate dream. For such evidence can only be obtained from an external world in which one is awake.
Any recourse to parsimony (Ockham’s razor), or probabilistic arguments to refute dream skepticism (eg, that the dream hypothesis is more improbable than the waking hypothesis), would be equally problematic. As I’m sure some have argued, since our concept of parsimony and our very notions of what is or is not probable are obtained from the external world, then any use of such concepts or methodologies would again already assume that one is not in an elaborate dream. Such concepts or methodologies could just be part of that dream. Even the strong belief that one just ‘knows’ the difference between dreaming and waking could also just be part of that dream.
To be sure, skepticism can seem selfrefuting. But the notion that the skeptic can be skeptical even of his/her own skeptical hypotheses only reasserts skepticism’s claim: that one cannot know.
Lastly, to dismiss such skepticism (as many do) as ridiculous is always easy, but such cheap characterizations make for poor counter-arguments.
Insofar as one’s brain can be stimulated to produce the same perceptions as would otherwise be produced by an external world (that one dreams attests to this possibility), then an epistemic gap will always obtain between one’s perceptions and their causes. As with Hume, all that one has to go on are perceptions. So I don’t think it’s necessarily contradictory for the skeptic to live in accordance with such perceptual information, even if its source is philosophically questioned.
Surely no one really denies the existence of the perceived external world (and no one should); the point, according to Hume and others, is only that no proof can be had in any nonquestion- begging way. And this is all that skeptical hypotheses serve to show.
Contrary to Philips, I don’t think ‘core belief’ skeptics claim to know as just plain true the proposition that there’s no reason to believe in the external world, for example. Such a proposition would just be a further knowledge claim, which the skeptic could equally question. Thus, I see no contradiction on the skeptic’s part, only epistemological agnosticism.
DEAR EDITOR: Philip Badger in his article ‘A Way of Thinking About Ethics’ (Issue 53) comments that some of his ‘libertarian’ students objected to taxation because it violated their top ethics principle of ‘respecting autonomy’.
It is easy to see how this would follow if one takes the principle of respecting autonomy (the ethical prohibition on compelling force) seriously. Paying taxes is not optional, and compelled performance (without contract) is nothing if not an infringement on autonomy.
The question then becomes, is there some other principle which trumps respecting autonomy; the prevention of suffering, for instance? Other of Mr Badger’s students, referred to as ‘the paternalists’, thought that in certain circumstances the ‘prevention of suffering’ principle would justify a violation of autonomy.
A point his students “picked up with relish” was Mr Badger’s suggestion of a ‘third way’, whereby both ‘big life’ choices (hang-gliding) and ‘too trivial’ choices (painting one’s living-room orange) were not to be interfered with. This left open a “vast number of medium scale choices…which might be interfered with on the grounds that doing so might prevent suffering.”
Mr Badger states, “There’s no point in placing a principle about preventing suffering second in a list where respecting autonomy was first. Such an ordering would never lead to seatbelt wearing or tax-funded health care.” He goes on to say, “However, it is unreasonable to suggest that making people wear seat belts, paying them unemployment benefit or making children learn about the principle export crops of Brazil is tyrannical…” and finally, “We might have to reform welfare…but we don’t have to consider abolishing it.”
The problem with Mr Badger’s ordering, and the reason why respecting autonomy is first and preventing suffering second, is that, first and foremost, we are all autonomous beings who desire to remain autonomous. The desirability of pain relief does not mean we want it imposed on us. ‘Preventing suffering’ does not work as an ethical principle because it is not universal. Under this principle, masochism is inherently unethical, and practitioners of pain would be forced to ‘suffer’ alleviation. Even in the hard case of the suffering infant, the alleviation of suffering comes out of respect for the infant’s autonomy, the presumption being that he would choose to end his life if he could.
An additional principle, “to promote the autonomy of potentially autonomous beings” confuses autonomy with capability, and implies that children and the disabled need autonomy when what they need is assistance. Autonomy, the state of not being interfered with, has nothing to do with capability. With respect to seatbelt laws, we’re only talking about one’s own suffering. Mr Badger claims this issue is not too big or too little for ‘interference’, thus putting it squarely in the just-right-for-intervention column. In more personal terms, how does he know that this is not a big life issue for you? And why is it ‘ethical’ that a decision about your suffering should become his decision? Unlike the infant, you can make your will known. Is Mr Badger’s class (or the general population) in a better position than you to navigate the tricky business of whether or not to buckle up?
Respect for autonomy is unique among principles of ethics, in that it accommodates values without imposing them (everyone is free to buckle up, or not, or to contribute, or not, as he/she sees fit). This principle alone holds hard against the proposition that ends justify means. Compliance with this principle limits one to behaving toward others in the only way one can behave toward one’s self, for it is impossible to selfcoerce. After all, pulling a gun on one’s self is no breach of autonomy, quite the contrary. To put it more pointedly, Mr Badger and the paternalists are incapable of accepting for themselves the same violation of autonomy which they intend to impose on others. In other words, we’re all libertarians when it comes to our own autonomy. It is only the autonomy of others upon which we may encroach.
DEAR EDITOR: Three cheers to your correspondent in Issue 54 for pointing out clearly and with eloquence that when virtue ethics is left out from the classification of ethics (which is then restricted to deontological and utilitarian schools of thought), we are confined to a self-contained circle. This results in the Direct View, which holds that morality is primarily about acts or conducts. It leaves out the equally or perhaps more important Indirect View, which claims that moral agency and character are decisive factors in ethics.
I was therefore sorry to see that in the same issue, my good friend Richard Baron made the same omission when he analysed Ethics In Government.
DEAR EDITOR: It seems to me that the problem with race raised by various of your correspondents [PN letters 52-54] is caused by the semantic confusion in our use of the word in two irreconcilable senses, ie as meaning species when we talk of ‘the human race’, and meaning breed when we talk of ‘racial differences’.
All dogs are the same species and are nearly identical genetically.
Mongrelisation blurs the distinction between breeds, but nonetheless, given statistical samples large enough to eliminate individual differences, general temperamental and intellectual differences as well as the obvious physical ones can be detected between, say, sheepdogs, pekes, and pit-bulls. This has nothing to do with any overall superiority, since the question as to which is the ideal pet depends on whether you are on a sheep farm, in a suburban drawing room, or living on a sink estate.
The same point applies to different breeds of humans, even though in some quarters it is the height of Political Incorrectness to admit it!
Revisions And Improvements
DEAR EDITOR: I dispute the relevance, if not the accuracy, of some of the statements in Wartenberg's article on King Kong in Issue 54.
He says, “This is one of the problems with remakes. While they need to retain major elements of the original film in order to be a remake of it, they also have to fiddle with elements that seem arbitrary, offensive, or outmoded. The problem is that works of art are, as Hegel said, organic wholes, so that all of the elements are internally related to one another. Changing one has ramifications for all of the others… as King Kong demonstrates.”
But what is true of King Kong is not necessarily true of remakes in general. John Huston's The Maltese Falcon, 1941, was a remake of a movie that had been made twice before, the first time under the same title. Huston's remake a) stayed closer to the text of the original 1928 novel than either of the previous two versions and b) was so successful that both earlier movies were forgotten. There were no “arbitrary, offensive, or outmoded” elements to worry about:: all three versions were standard hard-boiled mystery melodramas. The last simply happened to be the best.
It is rare for a remake to be better than version one. Movies are remade because they were very successful to begin with, and therefore the odds are against the remake being as successful. Still, The Maltese Falcon is not the only remake that outshone its original: His Girl Friday, a remake of The Front Page that changes the hero from a man to a woman, is one of the classics of American cinema, while the original Front Page is an early sound movie that is almost forgotten.
Hegel did say works of art were organic wholes; but he also said, on hearing that a Turkish monarch complained that a picture of a living thing lacked a soul, that the Turk was wrong because according to Hegel, the soul of the painting was in the spectator! In this spirit, remakes may be alright when they are brought properly up-todate for the current audience. This is difficult, of course, but it seems to me no more difficult that most of the artistic challenges movies often face: adopting a play or a novel, making a third James Bond movie as good as the first two, etc.
To range a little farther afield, Hamlet, perhaps our greatest drama, is at once an update and a mild parody of earlier Elizabethan ‘revenge tragedies’. This must have been a problem for Shakespeare–taking an out-of-date form and trying to give it new life–but it wasn't a problem that made Hamlet less than great. Later works like The Count of Monte Cristo show that there's apparently an infinite amount of life in the revenge theme–but adding to a genre differs I think only in degree from remaking an old movie. His Girl Friday, which I mentioned earlier, was not marketed as a remake, though The Front Page received the screen credit it was legally due. More than half the movie's dialogue comes from The Front Page, yet it's more another movie in the comicreporter- detective genre than a remake – or at least one could argue that it is.
Deductive Inductive Reasoning
DEAR EDITOR:There seems to be a fundamental problem with the Induction debate as inspired by Humean scepticism [‘Why should past evidence be a good guide to future experience?’ Ed]. Though Hume showed that we have difficulties, to say the least, in rationally justifying induction, we also have no rational reasons to doubt the procedure. So this is a draw, in a rational sense, and provides no evidence either way, in favour of or against induction’s reliability. What it probably shows, in fact, is a limit to rational thought, rather than any reason to doubt induction, especially given our inclination, perhaps even psychological necessity, to believe in it and act on it.
To put it another way, what could possibly constitute a disproof of induction? Where someone can show that some other method, say tea leaves, works better perhaps? But how could this be shown–by pointing back in time and showing that tea leaves worked more often than induction? But hang on; aren’t you using induction here to disprove induction? Therefore this is circular. The more you use induction to undercut induction, the more you strengthen it. In fact we only have two possible ways, it seems, to rationally falsify induction – deduction and induction. Deduction just doesn’t seem to apply to experience, so we are left only with induction. Thus there is no way to disprove induction; or in other words, it appears impossible to rationally doubt that past experiences are a guide to future experiences.
DEAR EDITOR: I have a comment on the ‘How To Be Conscious’ article in Issue 54. I agree with the last expert mentioned [Colin McGinn], that it is impossible to understand and fully explain our own consciousness. Everything is dependent on natural laws, and I have the idea that the number of natural laws must be infinite. The idea that science some day shall have traced and explored everything is naïve, and false. Because an infinite number of natural laws and principles must exist, there must also be a priori room for everything–also the greatest of all riddles, our own consciousness.
KRISTEN FALCH JAKOBSEN
DEAR EDITOR: It would seem that when printing Nolan White’s short story, ‘Miranda and the Meaning of Life’, (Issue 54), you omitted the last paragraph. So here it is.
‘Miranda returned to the café, and had an enjoyable meal with her new associates. Understandably they asked her about the quest she had gone on to discover the meaning of life. She said that she had indeed collected a range of views on this, and settled on the interpretation offered by the wise old street sweeper. Then she said to her hosts, “I could stay here and co-operate with you to explore these concerns. For example we could engage in dialogue, share some comparative evidence and experiences, and focus attention on how our very existence, our human labour, might make a difference to the quality of life, here and elsewhere. I could help us all to engage in a full and frank discussion about fairness, justice, equity, and share in the struggle to develop democratic values. I could do that; but given my freedom of choice, I shall bugger off and leave you to it, while I continue to indulge myself. Bye!”’